Making Trouble Today

— Pam Galpern

A Troublemakers Handbook 2: How to Fight Back Where You Work
edited by Jane Slaughter
Detroit, MI: Labor Notes, 2005, 8½ x 11 format, 372 pages, $24 paper
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ACTIVISTS WHO READ the first A Troublemaker’s Handbook, published by Labor Notes in 1991, recognized themselves in the stories of courageous workers who fought to improve their workplaces and their lives. They were gratified that they were not alone, that there was a whole network of troublemakers out there, and even a handbook that took the lessons they’d learned and made them accessible to thousands of other workers.

A Troublemaker’s Handbook 2, published in 2005, is an all-new edition. This book tells the stories of thousands more troublemakers who stood up for what they believe in, facing employers better organized and even more determined to wring concessions from them. An encouraging sign in difficult times: Sales of this book in the first three months have equalled those of the first year of the earlier edition.

Creative Tactics

Comparing the 1991 and 2005 versions of Troublemaker’s Handbook offers a glimpse into how things have changed for workers over these years.

The basic tenets of Labor Notes — shop floor organizing, fighting concessions, building broad participation and community support, promoting democracy and accountability in unions — are all here. But an indication of how acutely labor is on the defensive is that chapters on wildcat and sitdown strikes from the first edition are absent in the second.

Those topics are included in the chapter on strikes, but there haven’t been enough wildcats or sitdowns in recent years to warrant separate chapters. The 2005 edition, however, includes chapters which aren’t in the first book: on creative tactics, building websites and dealing with media.

In 1991 there were probably a handful of workers centers in the country. In 2005 there are dozens. The chapter on workers centers describes how Make the Road by Walking, a Brooklyn-based workers center, helped immigrant workers recoup tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages; how the Chicago Interfaith Workers’ Center helped a group of workers establish a relationship with the Carpenters’ union; and the Latino Union’s organizing with day laborers in Chicago, among other stories.

Immigrant Workers

Immigrant workers are a growing percentage of the U.S. labor force, and a significant number of newly organized union members. The chapter on Bringing Immigrants into the Movement takes on some of the challenges unions face when organizing in immigrant communities.

Ironworkers Local 272 in Miami was an all-white local with fewer than 100 members, until they decided to reach out to the African American, Haitian, Jamaican and Latin American construction workers in the local workforce.

Dave Gornewicz describes the process the local went through in transforming itself, which included bringing Black and Latino members into the leadership and challenging white members’ racism:

“When race becomes an issue on the job, the leadership will immediately go to the job and tell people it won’t be tolerated. And members have been brought before the executive committee for violating that rule.” (246)

Union leaders challenged white workers to confront their prejudices and acknowledge that it was only by working together with Black and Latino workers that they would be able to rebuild a strong union.

Stories of immigrant workers aren’t confined to the chapters on workers centers and bringing immigrants into the movement. U.S. labor has myriad lessons to learn from immigrant workers — many of whom bring experience with militant labor struggles from their home countries — for example, about building on a community’s cohesiveness and cultural traditions to strengthen organizing campaigns.

Omaha Together One Community, a coalition of congregations, joined with the United Food and Commercial Workers to organize four meatpacking plants in Omaha.

Meatpacking workers face brutal working conditions and often fear being fired and in some cases deported. It’s extremely difficult to come out publicly for the union under those circumstances.

David Bacon, speaking with activist Olga Espinoza, describes the turning point as the moment when workers stood up at a Spanish-language mass to publicly support the union:

“After a few minutes, more than a hundred workers were on their feet, some with concern or fear on their faces, but all determined that secret support for the union would be a thing of the past. From that moment, Espinoza knew that ‘if we could stand up in the church on Sunday, we could do it in the plant on Monday.’” (253)

Ideas for Organizing

When the first A Troublemaker’s Handbook was published, Labor Notes was leading the effort to educate workers on the dangers of labor-management cooperation schemes. We lost that fight, and by the time of the second edition, those schemes had become dominant in most industries, from auto to health-care.

In the 2005 book, a chapter on fighting lean production and outsourcing encourages workers to use joint labor-management committees as forums “or ‘continuous bargaining.’” This means forcing employers to bargain over any changes they attempt to implement. Instead of assuming that mobilization can only happen at contract time, it advises workers to mobilize over every change management proposes which will affect the workplace — technology changes, health and safety issues, and contracting out, to name a few.

This approach is critical to maintaining power on the job, as technology and work processes in many industries are changing so fast that if unions, increasingly tied to longer contracts, wait for contract negotiations, they find it’s too late to save jobs and acquire new work.

A Troublemaker’s Handbook 2 is written for workers to read and to use. I picked it up the night before beginning work as a member-organizer with my local. I’d never done new organizing before, and was looking for pointers.

Often times it’s small concrete suggestions that stick out. During the organizing drive at Fletcher Allen Health Care, nurses wrote quotes in a blank book describing why they were supporting the union. They took the book around the hospital to encourage other nurses to publicly express their support. More and more nurses added their own quotes to the book.

I had never heard of this idea before, but it struck me as a good idea in industries where workers work in far-flung locations and don’t necessarily communicate regularly. The new edition includes a resource section at the end of each chapter with extensive references to additional articles, reports and resources available on the respective topics.

The message throughout the book is that it doesn’t take an expert to lead a fight for better jobs, dignity at work, an end to discrimination, or whatever the fight might be. It takes workers who know their workplace and their co-workers, are willing to stand up to management (and union officials when necessary), and engage allies in the struggle.

Maybe it’s more accurate to say the message isn’t that you don’t need an expert, but that we are the experts. And we need to put that expertise to use.

One of the book’s strengths is including stories of losses as well as victories. The chapter on contract campaigns describes the fight at Ralph’s Grocery Company.

“‘We ended up getting a contract, although it was not a good contract,’ says [Frank] Halstead [Teamster Local 572 steward]. Halstead believes, though, that stopping scabs ‘had a tremendous empowering effect on the workers. The next day everyone’s chest was stuck out as if they were saying to the supervisors, “You don’t scare me.” The culture of the warehouse has dramatically changed from that time on.’” (98)

With the relationship of forces so skewed against unions and working people at the moment, it’s not unusual to fight like hell and lose. Just holding your ground is sometimes considered a victory today — even if 15 years ago that might have signified a step backward.

We have a lot to learn from the losing battles as well as the winning ones. Most useful are when those stories lay out what needs to happen next time.

At General Electric in 2003, IUE-CWA Local 201 leaders thought the national contract “had definite pluses but fell short of being acceptable.” Local President Jeff Crosby talked about how important it was to give members an honest contract summary, and a critical evaluation of why they didn’t get as much as they would have liked.

Why? “With only 20% of the GE workforce unionized, we just didn’t have the leverage to force GE into something it really didn’t want.” The solution? “Making people understand the need to put effort into organizing the rest of GE.” (105)

Standing Together

THERE’S STORY AFTER STORY OF CO-WORKERS WHO CAME THROUGH TO STAND BEHIND EACH OTHER. LINCOLN ROSE, a transgender grocery worker in Seattle, was forced to have a manager accompany him to the bathroom, and later to put up a sign that said “This bathroom is OCCUPIED” after a male co-worker filed a grievance saying that he felt uncomfortable.

Rose considered this discriminatory (and humiliating), but was told there was no contract language to prohibit it. Rose’s co-workers convinced him to start a petition demanding “that in upcoming contract bargaining and in the union bylaws, Local 1105 [UFCW] include language prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

“Once we started the petition drive,” Rose explains, “people had something they could get behind, a way to make a difference. Union pride started going up. People were saying, ‘We don’t have to wait for the company. We can do something about this.’” (49)

Reading the book, I felt proud — proud to be part of the scrappy part of the labor movement. Proud of troublemakers I had never met who faced tremendous odds to fight for power and dignity on the job.

ATC 117, July–August 2005